Sensationalism versus sobriety in the art of religion news in the 19th & 20th Centuries
Over the next two hundred years after the publication of the first American newspaper Publick Occurrences in 1690, the news media proliferated while the number of pages and design elements grew. The reign of “objective news” was gradually supplanted by the reign of screaming headlines and sob-provoking stories.
New technologies and ideas in communication, printing, photography, illustration, and sound stretched the definition of news. News producers infused emotions and opinions into news stories through new innovations like tabloid, opinion and entertainment journalisms. However, the barebones design characteristic of the early designs persisted to make newspapers have the appearance of cluttered signboards.
Religion reporting mixed chronicles of religious events and the coming of going of religious personages with long excerpts or summations of sermons. In line with the increasing involvement of the United States in world affairs, the press also covered missions and their national contexts.
In the late 19th Century the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis showed how a religious sensibility could lead to deeper and more innovative local stories and photographs. His How the Other Half Lives set a benchmark for all subsequent documentary journalism. Louis Klopsch, a forgotten figure, used the million-circulation Christian Herald, published in New York City and associated with The Bowery Mission, to pioneer brilliantly done etchings and paintings of religious events and introduced modern color printers into the New York City mass media industry.
However, at the end of the 19th Century, the general trend toward emotional hyperbole in reporting was so overboard that a reaction against it started to set into the news room.
In January 1897 the New York Press delivered its epithet “yellow journalism” against the lurid, often propagandist practices of certain news organs, and a month later the New York Times moved its lofty seven words “All the News That’s Fit to Print” from the editorial page to the upper left-corner of its front page. News media was shifting from an era of surplus subjectivity to an era of surplus objectivity. One was too emotional, opinionated and factually unreliable while the other modeled itself on the voice of God while hiding opinion under the rubric of the big parent who knows better than the reader, “objectivity,” or “scientific rationalism.”
The era of surplus subjectivity was thus supplanted by a revolution in favor of objectivity and restrained emotions in news reports. Both the tone and look of news reports became overly sober. Emotion was boxed into ads, and public relations became the scientific production of emotions. Modern art movements that influenced news design usually yielded simple abstract forms and layouts that worked best for magazines.
Overall, news media often assumed the emotional tone of an establishment: high-minded; and paternally indulgent, at best, to non-elite religions. Mostly, monopolistic and oligopolistic news media followed John D. Rockefeller in his hostility to a competitive religious market. The established mainline religions tended to be favored while new competitors tended to be cast as either curiosities, holdovers from an antediluvian age. The space and placement given to religion news de-emphasized its importance. Over the years, there were exceptions to this trend, usually to serve other newspaper goals. For example, after World War II, Time magazine would puff Billy Graham in its hopes of aiding a Cold War mobilization in the United States.
There were some experiments in newspaper design that broke away from the current trends. In 1897 another model of journalism situated itself between the yellow journalism and the industrial model. Its run lasted just a couple of years, but its impact trickled through most journalism, receiving a revival with the “new journalism” of the 1960s-1980s and among various digital enterprises including A Journey through NYC religions.
In reaction to then-current models of journalism, Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis’ friend who later became famous for his exposes of big business wrongdoing and the miseries of the underclass, tried out a new form of journalism at the New York Commercial Advertiser (which later became The New York Globe). He decried “the rise of impersonal, advertising-based ‘commercial journalism.’” Steffens believed that both the sensationalist and sober daily news media were missing most of the human life of New York City. He proposed to hire a new type of reporter and send them into the streets to catch life as it was actually lived.
Steffens sent his reporters out with a love for all of New York City, not just that part beloved by the elite newspapermen in Manhattan. He wrote, “[My] ambition was to have it reported so that New Yorkers might see, not merely read of it, as it was: rich and poor, wicked and good, ugly but beautiful, growing, great.” Like A Journey, this city editor placed a premium on covering the new comers to the city and his reporters walking the streets. As a disciple of Jacob Riis, he himself had already published many articles on New York’s Jewish ghetto and the life of immigrants in the city.
The editor picked young people who had no or little reporting experience in order to send them into the streets to experience the fullness of New York as it was fresh and marvelous in their eyes. In his memoirs Steffens wrote, “I wanted fresh, young, enthusiastic writers who would see and make others see the life of the city.” The Commercial Advertiser city staff had “use for any one who, openly or secretly, hoped to be a poet, a novelist or an essayist.” His belief was that his reporters’ naive street experience would be filled with a zest and empathy for all citizens of the city, not just the ones deemed important by Manhattan editors, and “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”
His aim was to write newspaper stories “so humanly that the reader will see himself in the other fellow’s place.” Steffens wanted his reporters to have an empathetic understanding of even the baddest actors in the city. He sent Abraham Cahan, who would become the legendary editor of The Jewish Forward, to write on a man who killed his wife in “a rather bloody, hacked-up crime.” In The Year that Defined American Journalism Joseph Campbell observes that Steffens “encouraged Cahan to go beyond relating the crime’s sordid details and find out why a man who had ‘loved someone once well enough to marry her’ came to hate her so intensely that he cut her to pieces. ‘If you can find out just what happened between that wedding and this murder,’ Steffens told Cahan, ‘you will have a novel for yourself and a short story for me.’”
Steffens grew tired of the experiment, and it ended after a few years. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long enough to develop its own aesthetics to match its written text.
However, some of the lessons of finding “the charm and beauty and significance of commonplace men and women” lived on. For example, in the 1890s Stephen Crane published true-life sketches of local color in almost every New York newspaper. What was lost in Crane and others, however, was an empathetic understanding of religious people whose mindset was distant from the prejudices of the majority of news media people. Gradually, the joy in the religious element of the city seems to have waned in city journalism.
Even in the religious press, like the million-circulation Christian Herald, the spirit of modern industrial civilization sucked the life out of the reporting and design of religion news reporting. Life-like sketches and gritty photos of street life and the poor, humanly displayed, were replaced by roseate illustrations of flowers and beautiful church architecture. News reporting and theology that brimmed with street observations was replaced by opinion pieces and public relations, and management shifted from a German immigrant, who introduced photo reproduction into the New York press, to the merchandiser J.C. Penney.
Many media just downsized their coverage of religion and hired few orthodox religionists onto their staff.
After World War II, evangelicals pioneered the use of public communications. However, many of these efforts like the Billy Graham crusades drew more from public relations than from the news media. Consequently, it did not contribute much to the aesthetics of religion news reporting.
The era of surplus objectivity harmonized with the machine age, mass production and gambits to monopolize the production of news. Consequently, as the Twentieth Century unfolded, media monopolies and oligopolies started to restrain innovation. Most towns had one paper, and most cities had just a couple of television stations. In New York City newspaper unions responded to the centralization of ownership with an extreme defense of the status quo, which in the end accelerated the trend toward a newspaper oligopoly.
In the 1960s New York City newspapers were embattled by unions, audiences leaving for television and the suburbs, and oligopolistic habits of business operations. In desperation some turned to re-designs. These experiments came too late and didn’t reflect a resetting of the way industrial journalism did business.
Philip Ritzenberg, design editor of the now-defunct New York News, recalled in Print, “Virtually the entire industry clings to archaic graphic forms. While newspaper journalism continues to change and grown, the average newspaper itself still resembles a bulletin board hung with shreds of information, disorder passing for spontaneity, stridency passing for immediacy.”
The New York Herald Tribune hired designer Peter Palazzo to save it. He recalled, “When I came in, they were in such bad shape they said ‘What the hell: what have we got to lose?’ There was absolutely nothing at stake.” The paper’s relaunch in 1963 gained circulation, then lost momentum.
The newspapers in the city spiraled in a death move, but at least some of the design ideas lived on. Other papers added colors, graphics, changed the size and placement of type and space, and so forth. On September 15, 1982 USA Today presented a modular look designed to resemble a television screen when the paper was viewed through a news paper kiosk.
However, almost all of the changes didn’t particularly reflect a re-examination of the fundamentals of journalism which continued to be based on cold-eyed objectivity and an unsympathetic take on religion, particularly non-elite religion.
Digital busted the monopolies and oligopolies and created the possibility for incredible innovations in discovering and displaying the news. Assembly line news and the lino-type formats were replaced by the complexity and contradictions of online news media. The digital news world also parallels the social and cultural fragmentation into thousands of micro-ecologies. The challenge of today is finding out how to relate this complexity and its contradictions into news designs. A Journey reporting is firmly planted in this new soil.
Note: originally published in A Journey through NYC religions, October 14, 2015. As far as we know, this is the first ever published series on the art of religion news.